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Weekly Column

Wishing for Audrey: Now That the World Is Finally Ready for Internet Appliances, Where Are They?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

We spent Thanksgiving in North Carolina with my in-laws, the King and Queen of McDonald's. My father-in-law, now retired, used to own eight McDonald's restaurants now run by his sons. It's a weird thrill, I'll tell you, to order a strawberry milkshake and leave without paying for it, but that's a right extended to even we lowly hangers-on to McDonald's nobility. Yeah, but what to get the Queen of McDonalds for Christmas? I bought her an Audrey (please don't tell).

An Audrey, nee Ergo Audrey, nee 3Com Audrey, is, or was, an Internet appliance -- a small computer intended solely for web browsing. Several such boxes appeared in the 2000-2001 era, though none to my knowledge are still manufactured. And that's a shame because the world is finally ready for Internet Appliances just at a time when the computer industry is darned sure it isn't going to make any more.

If you saw my "Nerds 2.01" show, you saw Oracle's Larry Ellison ranting about how stupid PCs are, with their hard and floppy disks, and what most of us really want is a simple appliance for doing e-mail and web browsing with storage and all software housed somewhere on the Net where Larry's kid would be in charge of keeping everything current. So many people saw that show (Bob claimed) that a little Internet Appliance industry came into existence with products coming from vendors like Compaq and 3Com. Only nobody bought them, simply because they were too darned slow.

But that was then and this is now. Now we have broadband in a large percentage of homes and we have cheaper memory and faster/cheaper processors. The irony is that four years after they died, the market is just screaming for such products to extend the Internet to the final few places it doesn't yet belong, like my mother-in-law's house.

She had a computer, but never noticed that it had been fried by a power surge. When we arrived for Thanksgiving it was still "on" but dead, the monitor an unblinking eye. She has an e-mail address, but doesn't check it. She wants to make airline and hotel reservations over the Internet, but instead does it over the phone to my wife, her very own Internet travel agent.

This woman needs an Audrey. Smaller than the PC it will replace, Audrey can sit on her desk next to the telephone answering machine. When she gets an e-mail both a big button and the translucent stylus will glow and blink. There's a touchscreen (no mouse), and the little keyboard is wireless and can be hidden in a drawer. You can also mount your Audrey on a wall. It would be the perfect device for a telco to bundle with some entry-level DSL service, don't you think?

My 80 year-old mother could use an Audrey, but only if it supported the bridge program she runs on her original iMac. Practicing bridge every day on her Mac is what keeps my Mom sharp so she can defeat and humiliate her card-playing friends. "I'll be so good they'll never know what hit them," she said. Really. But Audrey doesn't play bridge yet.

The wonderful thing about the Internet, of course, is that there is nearly always a support community that grows around every hardware and software platform, even those long discontinued. Want help with your Commodore 64? No problem. And the same is true for the Audrey, which 3Com seems to have ordered in vast quantities since unopened units are always available on eBay, right now, for a Buy-It-Now price of $83.95, complete with Ethernet adapter and the latest software upgrades.

Audreys are being used as home controllers, MP3 players, even baby monitors. The operating system (QNX 2000) is available in several versions, with new ones coming all the time. There are even hardware upgrades like faster processors and built-in WiFi. The Audrey I ordered for the Queen of McDonalds comes with extra memory and a 333 MHz processor (normal is 200 MHz). It cost me $219.95, which is top dollar in the Audrey universe, but I wanted a warranty, thank you.

The next time we'll see something like an Audrey coming new from a manufacturer, I doubt that manufacturer will be in the PC business. That's because Internet appliances failed so miserably and the people who built them, if they survived at all, are still in their same jobs and determined not to make that mistake again, even if now it would be a good idea.

Today's Audrey equivalent with a 400 MHz xScale processor, pen and keyboard input, and built-in WiFi, would sell well at a $300 price point. But isn't that the specs for many Pocket PC (Windows CE) devices? Yes, but they need a bigger screen than a handheld. Today's Audrey equivalent would be a lapheld. And $300 is a little cheap for such a device, too, don't you think? How would the manufacturers make money? In the era of the free mobile phone, the idea of bundling hardware with a service makes sense to everyone except ISPs. Today's Audrey equivalent would cost $300, but only with a one-year commitment to entry-level DSL service at, say, $25 per month.

Remember, you heard it here first.

And speaking of hearing it first, Dan Sherman would like me to point out that HE was the first person to write about how Wal-Mart could offer WiMax service. Dan's web log entry is among this week's links. I'm not a reader of his, but you might want to check it out.

The whole prospect of WiMax, Wal-Mart, and a telco backlash produced plenty of mail. Readers wanted to point out that the U.S. Post Office has something like 19,000 locations, though the Post Office is hardly likely to do anything with WiMax. A better possibility might be FedEx, which now has drop-off boxes outside most post offices; maybe FedEx could make it happen using both its own and Post Office locations, and even putting repeaters on all those delivery trucks.

Intel and Craig McCaw are betting on ClearWire, McCaw's WiMax startup.

But the big point is still not who does it but why, and with what effect. The big telcos are going to do whatever they can to stop the tide of technology, but their days are numbered. Just look at AT&T, that dismal smoking carcass. AT&T is what even the strongest of the telcos will become if they don't realize that the cost of bandwidth is headed to zero and the only real business is going to be ownership of the bits that go over the line, not the line itself. Of course, this turns the whole concept of being a common carrier on its head, but that's the way it is with revolutions. Heads roll.

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